In the final budget of the Congress-led Karnataka government, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announced a populist budget for the state in a last ditch attempt to hold on to the state in next year’s Assembly elections. Schemes like Namma canteen, inspired from Jayalalithaa’s Amma Canteen, caps on movie ticket rates, free laptops for students admitted to engineering and medical colleges, compensation on death of livestock and increased allotment of free food grain to people living below poverty line are some of the populist schemes announced in the budget document. Karnataka is one of the largest states where the Congress is in power and it seems the party is doing all it can to return to power.
In other schemes, complete interest waiver has been announced on agricultural loans of up to ₹3 lakh and a 3 per cent interest will be charged on loans up to ₹10 lakh. Interest has also been struck off on loans by co-operative banks to women self help groups.
Siddaramaiah and his government have been at the centre of numerous controversies. The Cauvery dispute with Tamil Nadu, the recent steel flyover standoff, and an unsettling cabinet reshuffle only added to the controversies. The CM’s son Yathindra Siddaramaiah also came under the scanner after his company Matrix Imaging Solutions won a tender for setting up a pathology laboratory in the government-owned super-specialty Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute (BMCRI). Siddaramaiah also came in highlight for allegedly splurging on a swiss-made Hublot watch touted to be worth at least ₹25 lakh. After much ruckus in the Assembly, he deposited it with the speaker claiming it was a gift.
Congress’ national leadership, on many occasions, had to step in and steady the ship – like interventions by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Congress general secretaries Mallikarjun Kharge and B.K. Hariprasad. Furthermore, veteran leader S.M. Krishna’s move to join the BJP after a 46-year innings with the Congress will also dampen the Congress’ support in the crucial Vokkaliga community. At present, Congress seems vulnerable in Karnataka and open to adopting populism instead of its integral ideology of socialism.
Siddaramaiah’s tenure is about to complete four years in a couple of months and at 3 years 306 days on Wednesday, his government has seen the longest time in office since S.M. Krishna’s Congress government completed its full term back in 2004. The state has since, barring a brief period of stability under B.S. Yeddyurappa, seen a tumultuous electoral environment and governments have fallen much too soon.
Till 2014, Congress had a large footprint across the country with governments in states in a respectful number of state. After the defeat of 2014 in the General Election, the losses followed in Assembly elections too. The party has since been reduced to a handful of states. In the recently held elections in Goa and Manipur, it failed to form government despite emerging as the single largest party. It lost badly in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Holding on to Karnataka is crucial to save its political footprint and also to remain relevant in national politics.
Siddaramaiah and his Congress government landed into several other controversies. He made Tipu Sultan’s birthday a state celebration and insisted that it is celebrated in every district headquarter. The decision led to violence in the state and two people died in Coorg, one of the worst hit cities by Tipu Sultan. The Karnataka government replaced the Loka Ayukta and instead put in place an anti-corruption bureau that drew a lot of criticism for being under political control.
It may not be too late for the party to do course correction but that would take much more time to get noticed. Banking on the pro-poor card is the Congress’ play at the moment and this budget, in that respect, seems to be just right for the party.